A combination of factors under the West Virginia charter law indicate that the first year enrollment cycle at any charter school is a critical time to apply for parents who may wish to have their students attend. Initial enrollment levels are also critical for the school itself and will have lasting impacts on the culture and capacity for the charter school for many years into the future.
While a reasonable parent may wish to hold off for a year or two while the dust settles on the new school, the window of opportunity to enroll in a charter school may be closed for most potential students after the initial year of operations. This setting arises from practical considerations, regulatory factors, and the unique funding formula for WV public schools that are all tied to the initial enrollment cycle in unique ways.
Practically speaking, the first year of operations is almost always the easiest year to secure enrollment in a charter school because there are more spaces available and because community awareness of a charter school typically increases over time. With the mandatory reporting systems applicable to all public schools in West Virginia, including public charter schools, a highly successful charter school won't remain a secret for very long. While in some cases charter schools fail due to mismanagement, successful schools face increasing demand each year and, apart from financial considerations discussed below, it is often impractical from a programming perspective for the school to adjust enrollments each year to align with such increasing demand.
Charter schools in West Virginia are publicly-funded schools that are open to all students, but if new applicants in a particular year exceed available space then a lottery system is used to determine which students are enrolled. Returning students are automatically enrolled when applying for the following year and do not have to go through the lottery process to secure a spot. In the first year, however, the entire enrollment capacity is available to applicants as there are not yet any returning students who have automatically filled that space. This feature alone means that the odds of achieving enrollment will be much higher in year one than in any later year, all things being equal. While in theory Kindergarten students are all first time applicants, even that level will be more competitive in year two because siblings of returning students are given a preference for enrollment. So, for example, a child applicant for a Kindergarten space with a sibling that was enrolled in second grade in the prior year would be given a spot ahead of another applicant without such a sibling. This feature is baked into the law so that siblings are not compelled to attend different schools as a result of the enrollment lottery process, but this feature increases the advantage for families that choose to enroll in the first year over families that sit it out for a year or two.
Financial considerations specific to the West Virginia public system also restrict growth in subsequent years for charter schools and provide much greater flexibility in setting student capacity in the first year than in later years. Public school systems in West Virginia, including charter schools, are funded in large part based on student enrollments in the prior year. For example, the funding for each county school district for the fiscal year 2020-2021 is largely determined based on student enrollments in that district in October of 2019. So there is about a one year lag from when enrollments are counted to when the funding is provided to the school system for such enrollments. This gap is even longer if you consider that funding to a school system as late as June 2021 is based on enrollments that were determined in October 2019. Charter schools essentially function as their own independent school system, but using the standard formula would mean a new charter school would receive no funding from the state until its second year of operations. To resolve this problem, the charter law includes a special rule that applies in the first year of operations where the actual enrollment for the first year is used for determining the school's funding and then in all subsequent years the prior year enrollments are used.
The funding formula means charter schools will have far greater flexibility to set enrollment capacity at the level of actual demand in the first year whereas, in subsequent years, any expansion will be limited to the growth that is either funded through external sources or that is planned for at least a year in advance. Additionally, the first year enrollments determine whether there is sufficient minimal interest to open in the first place. The lag in funding suggests that the initial enrollment cycle will partially set the total size of the charter school for years into the future.
By way of example, our organization, West Virginia Academy, planned for a wide range of possible enrollment levels in our charter application and our school will be able to accommodate between just under 400 students and nearly 1,000 students in our first year of operations. However, in subsequent years our growth will be restricted by the funding formula and so we will not have the same level of discretion in setting enrollment levels. Our school could easily accommodate 800 in the first year and then grow by 10% to 880 in our second year, but going from 400 students to 800 students would not be financially possible under the current formula as the school would not receive any funding for half of its students in year 2 under that scenario. Additionally, because West Virginia Academy will offer grade levels K-8 in our first year and then expand into grade levels 9-12 one grade at a time in each subsequent year, most of the growth in the first five years will occur as existing students progress into the high school grade levels. In the absence of funds from outside sources or a change in the funding formula by the state legislature, the total size of our school for several years into the future will be determined by our first year enrollment.
These various factors add up to a setting where any student in West Virginia seeking to attend a charter school will almost certainly have the greatest opportunity to do so in a charter school's first year enrollment cycle and new applicants may even be precluded from enrolling at all in subsequent years. If this were not the case then the conventional wisdom of sitting out a year or two while the new school works out any kinks would make a lot of sense. As it is, the first-movers advantage is tremendous with West Virginia charter school applicants and decisions about whether to apply to a charter school are ideally made during the initial enrollment cycle.
West Virginia Academy is seeking to obtain a charter to open a school starting in the Fall of 2021. If you are a resident of Monongalia, Preston, or Marion County and you are seriously considering a charter school option for your child, please subscribe to our mailing list below to remain in the loop on West Virginia Academy's process.